Travel: Dennis Carr in Vietnam, Part 2


By Dennis Carr, Contributing Editor, on an excellent adventure

Vietnam by bicycle, rowboat, and ferry (Part 2)

Eating local: from serious challenge to gourmet delight

By Dennis Carr
Contributing Editor, True North Perspective
Image: Photo of a woman cycling in Vietnam while holding an umbrella. Photo by Dennis Carr.

In the morning of our fourth day, Joe Nguyen, our Marco Polo Travel guide, met us at the hotel and we drove to his suburban home where the van, Hugh the driver and the mountain bikes awaited us. We loaded up and drove for a few hours along modern highways until we turned onto a rural road leading to the village of Hoa Binh and the start of our bicycle ride. While waiting for the ride to begin, a few local children gathered about, observing us with polite curiosity but keeping a safe distance from the strangers. When George brought out his soccer ball (he never travels without it) the ice was broken and he and the kids, with Hugh joining in, passed the time with a pick-up game. Soccer is a universal language.

Image: Photo of children playing soccer in Hoa Binh, Vietnam. Photo by Dennis Carr.

Finally we started to pedal.  It was a challenging ride but we were excited to be on the move and dazzled by the spectacular and (to us) exotic scenery. The roads were well paved and ran high above the Da (Black) River valley offering spectacular views of karst rock formations.

Image: Photo of water buffalo on the road in Vietnam. Photo by Dennis Carr.

Along the way we observed a hydro dam construction site, water buffalo being led along the road by little kids, stilt house villages (including one under construction and women carrying of straw baskets of bamboo and sugar cane.

Image: Photo of women preparing roof tiles. Photo by Dennis Carr.

Lac Village

Gradually, the rugged landscape transformed into flat fields of rice paddies and we arrived at Lac Village for our overnight homestay in a traditional ethnic Thai village stilt house. The government, in an effort to stimulate tourism and local economies, has designated certain ethnic minority villages as homestay destinations. The structure was wood-frame post and beam with bamboo walls and roof purlins holding up cement roof tiles.

Image: Photo of a traditional Thai-style stilt-house. Photo by Dennis Carr.

Other buildings in the village had thatched roofs. The kitchen and common outdoor dining area of these homes was on the ground level as was the bathroom and shower area. Our sleeping accommodation was on the second floor in a large common area. We slept on bamboo mats with mosquito netting for privacy.

After a shower, a beer and supper, we wandered through the village which is located among the rice paddies. There were locally made products available, some of which were of very good quality. Many homes had outdoor looms with women making scarfs and other apparel. Other stalls sold cheap merchandise that was obviously made in a large factory far away from the area.

A large sharp cane knife for Ottawa

Image: Photo of Vietname villagers preparing food for a wedding. Photo by Dennis Carr.During the bike ride into the village I had noticed women carrying straw baskets on their backs loaded with bamboo and sugar cane and I decided that was just the kind of authentic local product for me. The venders only sold mini versions for the tourists but after a series of hand gestures I negotiated the purchase of a dirty old, black, but authentic, straw basket. It wasn’t a product being displayed for sale but rather a leftover remnant, pulled out of a pile destined for next week’s garbage collection. The seller must have felt a little guilty selling it to me for an exorbitant price because he searched around some more until he found an old, tatty, coloured piece of string which he tied on as a carrying strap. When I showed it to Joe he snickered and suggested it had probably been used to smoke food over a fire. I spent the next few days killing various bugs that were creeping out of it and, entering Canadian customs two weeks later I was held up while the diligent custom agents who, quite rightly, checked it carefully to make sure I wasn’t bringing illicit tiny creatures into the country. I also purchased a very large, very sharp cane knife because you never know when something like that will come in handy In Ottawa.

Image: Photo of Vietname villagers preparing food for a wedding. Photo by Dennis Carr.In the evening, musicians in ethnic costumes congregated and played concerts for the tourists. Across the lane from our stilt house, the local villagers were busy preparing food for a wedding. It was a group effort with lots of folks frying and boiling with huge pots and pans over larger outdoor wood fires. At around nine, well after the tourists, including ourselves had settled down for the night were jolted to attention by loud disco, hip hop and “Gangnam style” and sappy melodramatic Asian pop music blaring at high volume from loudspeakers seemingly right outside our windows. Eventually music stopped and we were allowed to sleep. We thought maybe the wedding was happening that evening but it turned out to be just the warm up to the real celebration scheduled for the following day.

Day 5

Everyone knows roosters are supposed to crow at the break of dawn but no one told this to the Lac Village genus. Well before sunrise, a rooster below our window crowed, followed by a chorus of his brothers. Then they were a few low voices and the banging of pots. By the time the full morning light was upon us, the crew next door was busy cooking again and the Asian pop crooning resumed. It was time for us to rise and prepare for our next day of cycling which turned out to be interesting, scenic and grueling.

Image: Interior of wood-working shop. Note the ancient, cast-iron tools. Photo by Dennis Carr.

After a fine breakfast of coffee, omelet, apples fritters and dragon fruit, we had time for another short stroll. As a former carpenter, I was particularly interested in the village woodworking shop with its extraordinarily ancient cast iron machines and wide boards of tropical hardwoods I have never encountered.

The Ho Chi Minh Trail

Image: An ancient brick kiln belches smoke near the Ho Chi Mihn Trail. Photo by Dennis Carr.

We then set out on our bikes, around the village, through other villages, rice paddies, across rice paddy dikes, past an ancient brick kiln spewing black smoke and then on a rough track through a bamboo forest.  We noticed workers harvesting roots which Joe explained would be turned in to herbs for the Chinese market.

Image: Workers harvest roots in preparation for market. Photo by Dennis Carr.

The trail turned into a minor road and we cycled through villages along the Ma River which, according to Joe, flows in from Laos. He told us later that this was part of the famous Ho Chi Minh Trail. I couldn’t help but imagine what it must have been like in the 1960’s and 70’s during the war when American bombers unsuccessfully tried to stop supplies from the north from reaching the south. The villages along this river were mostly industrial, primarily making items out of locally harvested bamboo. We passed by many small factories with ancient equipment making chop sticks and bamboo mats. On one section of the river the landscape was badly scarred. Joe explained this was the preparatory work to another large hydro dam.

Image: Workers on an industrial boat near shore. Photo by Dennis Carr.

Initially, the route was flat and easy to cycle. Eventually, there were small hills and by late morning, just in time for the heat of the day, the hills became quite steep. Despite frequent stops for water and photos I was suffering. It didn’t help that my ass was sore. On and on we cycled. On one steep section I had to stop and push the bike up the hill. It was quite humiliating. Joe and Janet (stronger cyclists) were well ahead of me. George the Wise had given up an hour earlier and was catching up on his sleep in the back of the van.

Finally, we saw the van stopped ahead of us, a sign that the biking, for that day, was over. Lunch, under a canopy of palm leaves, was tasty fried pork bits, cabbage salad, mussel soup and rice. George had pho. Joe and Hugh had a soup made from the pig’s offal. It smelled a bit nasty but fearless Janet gave it a go. She tasted a square, black, solid bit but didn’t ask for seconds.

Image: Children with bikes and cellphones. Photo by Dennis Carr.

We then hopped in the van and drove into Cuc Phuong National Park down a narrow, pitted road, past villages, huts, rice fields and small industrial operations, sharing the lane with cheerful school kids on bikes and scooters, yakking on cell phones. Joe complained that the road had been used by the large trucks constructing the hydro dam and was never repaired.

Cuc Phuong National Park

Image: Cyclists in Cuc Phuong National Park. Photo by Dennis Carr.

By late afternoon we had arrived at Cuc Phuong National Park; a jungle park. Referencing Wikipedia, Cuc Phuong is Vietnam's first national park, its largest nature reserve and one of the most important sites for biodiversity in Vietnam and home of the primate rescue centre. [Photo 17]

Cúc Phương is home to an amazing diversity of flora and fauna. Inhabitants of the park include 97 species of mammals, most notable endangered langurs; 300 species of birds; 36 reptilian species; 17 species of amphibians; 11 species of fish; 2,000 species of vascular plants, and thousands of species of insects. A number of species in the park are listed on Vietnam Red Book of endangered species.

Image: Monkeys in Cuc Phuong National Park. Photo by Dennis Carr.

Primates in the park include macaques, gibbon, François's leaf monkey and slow loris. Other mammals including bats, porcupine, flying squirrel, small striped squirrel, belly-banded squirrel, and the rare black giant squirrel. In the past the park was home to Asiatic black bears, wild dogs, and tiger, but over hunting and lack of prey have most led to the loss of these species. Leopard, clouded leopard and jungle cat may still be present in the park.

The Park also has a turtle conservation center and is home to some of the most endangered turtles in Vietnam.

Our room was in the Cuc Phuong Park Guest House, a two-story formerly grand, now pleasantly shabby building set in a lushly landscaped area surrounded by the tropical forest. The plaster was chipped and water marked, the paint was peeling but the room had all the mod cons; high ceilings, hot water in the shower, comfortable large beds with mosquito netting, a private rear patio and a larger common patio out front. One could easily imagine Somerset Maugham in the dying days of colonialism sipping G and T’s with the other expats, plotting the downfall of local governments and bragging about their latest sexual adventures while being carefully watched by suspicious and resentful locals. Or something like that.

As day grew darker we were subjected to the incessant barking of a dog. It made me wonder why the owner didn’t turn it into stew. Surely the hotels administrators would do something about this annoyance! Later that evening, Joe pointed out a toad in a planter and explained this was the creature making the barking noise, it being part of their mating ritual. It must have been a really horny toad; one sympathizes.

Day 6

We awoke to a chorus of Gibbons and after breakfast (I didn’t record what we ate but I’m sure George had pho) we went to the visitor education, ecology and conservation area including the tortoise rescue area the endangered primate rescue centre. Then we biked through the park and what a wonderful experience it was.

A smooth well maintained concrete road lined with banana trees took us through the thick jungle. We stopped and took a short hike up to a cave. With some other tourists, we wandered up and down ladders through a series of caves. Only when it became pitch black did we realize no one had brought a flashlight. Fortunately, someone had a cell phone and we used its light to guide us out.

The intent was to leave the park and bike another 20 kilometers to Highway #1, a major thoroughfare, but it was getting late and began to rain so we hopped into the van. We drove along a pretty country road past cane fields, rice paddies, vegetable gardens and endless roadside stalls. Teenagers without helmets on scooters chatted on cell phones while large tucks honked at them hoping they would get out of the way.

Eventually we reached the highway and stopped for lunch at another small, nondescript roadside establishment serving the most amazing dishes. Deep fried pork ribs, stirred fried beef, with morning glory stock, mussel soup with coarsely chopped garlic.

Image: A woman rows a boat with her feet. Photo by Dennis Carr.

We then proceeded to Tam Coc for a rowboat tour on the Ngo Dong River. The oars on our rowboat were propelled by a woman using her feet which came as quite a surprise. We joined a procession of other foot-powered floating tourists.

Image: A small flotilla of rowboats approaches karst cliffs. Photo by Dennis Carr.

The river tour revealed stunning scenery of limestone karst cliffs, small farms and rice paddies. Unfortunately the area was heavily commercialized. There was no end of opportunities on and off the water to purchase drinks, t-shirts and, trinkets and photos. The 2-hour journey took us through three limestone caves, beside farms carved into the hillside and small villages. Goats grazed on the steep hills. We ignored floating hawkers twice on the way out but at the halfway point, dehydrated from the heat and lack of water, we purchased over-priced (for Vietnam) soft drinks. On the ride back, our rower stopped, opened a tin box and tried to memorialize the occasion by selling us cheap looking t-shirts. We resisted.

At the end of the trip we offered up a tip of 20 Dong, about one dollar. This was Joe’s very clear advice. I asked if he meant 20 Dong per person but he insisted it should be for all of us. So when I offered that up our smiling pleasant driver turned into a raging demon, screaming and waving her hands. But we held firm. As we docked the boat, a photographer offered up a plastic covered coloured 5X7 photo of the three of us and the oarswoman. What efficiency! Of course we purchased that memento.

The evening was spent in a modern hotel in Ninh Binh, a small, pleasant provincial city. After settling in our room, we went for an evening stroll, stopping to purchase an IPhone charger at an Apple store. The shop keeper insisted on plugging the phone to the charger to do prove the charger actually worked! He wanted to demonstrate that his Apple products were genuine (or at least if they were fakes, they were working fakes). 

On the road to Cat Ba Island

Image: Two open ferry's on the Song Hong River, Vietnam. Photo by Dennis Carr.

Our destination the following day was Cat Ba Island and this would be our final day of biking. We started in the van, driving along a highway that paralleled a canal serving long stretches of rice fields. There was even rice planted between the graves stones in the local cemetery. Eventually Hugh pulled off the main road onto a rough rural road that ran past villages set among the rice fields and canals. The road passed over many bridges spanning the canals, ran along the Song Hong River, eventually terminating at a ferry stop. Water buffalo grazed beside the terminal (really just a ramp down into the river) while we waited for an old and creaky open ferry to take us to the other side of the river. The next road was smooth and modern by comparison, with the same chaotic mix of activities, this time including little three wheeled tractors hauling a variety of produce and livestock. At several locations, the shoulder and even part of the road itself was taken over by large tents set up to celebrate an important occasion, and traffic slowed to a crawl as we zigzagged around the activity. Passing by several large and elaborate Catholic churches the French influence was in evidence. As we got closer to the ocean we could see the ship yards of the Hai Phong industrial seaport, passing by an endless stream of cranes, shipping containers, storage tanks, warehouses and factories.

Ferry to Cat Hai Island

Image: Two ferries on the river near Hai Phong, Vietnam. Photo by Dennis Carr.

Between us and our final destination of Cat Ba Island was Cat Hai Island. To describe the ferry to Cat Hai as a rickety rust bucket is to do an injustice to rust buckets everywhere. It was a very informal occasion. The passengers were allowed to stay in their cars (those that had cars) or hang out with the Captain and crew on the upper deck. With George’s help, the Captain steered the ship while the crew played cards and gambled.

Image: George helps steer the ferry to Cat Hai Island, Vietnam. Photo by Dennis Carr.

While we weren’t overawed by Vietnamese ferry safety regulations, we were impressed by the endless parade of sampans (small load carrying boats) fishing boats and freighters. The waterways seemed as busy and productive as the rest of the country.

The intent was to find a lunch spot on Cat Hai but that didn’t work out so we took another, less rustic ferry to Cat Ba Island and found a spot on the waterfront. The café, part of a fish farm, was nestled under a bamboo gazebo. And what a fabulous meal it was! Stirred fried rice with shrimp and greens, fried octopus finished off with some excellent local vodka made from rice. To add to the exotic excitement, there was a very hyper and irritable monkey tied up to one the barrels in which the vodka was maturing. The irritability was not surprising because five young lads were amusing themselves by poking it with a stick.

After lunch we were finally back on our bikes for the last stretch. Initially, the route was flat as it paralleled the ocean front taking us through villages, rice paddies (of course) and sea salt farms. These were large flat expanses upon which salt water collects during high tide. When the tide recedes, deposits of sea salt are collected.

Much of Cat Ba Island is a park to protect its delicate jungle ecosystem. Cat Ba is mountainous and eventually the route became quite hilly. But it wasn’t as strenuous as the other days, maybe because the ocean winds were moderating the heat or maybe because we were finally starting to get in shape. It was a fun ride with lovely ocean vistas along the edge of the high cliffs unencumbered by guard rails to block the view.

Image: George helps steer the ferry to Cat Ba Island, Vietnam. Photo by Dennis Carr.

As we approached our destination of Cat Ba Town, we observed infrastructure being installed for enormous tourist resorts and holiday villas. Joe pointed out one large partially built complex that had been abandoned after the 2008 economic meltdown. But that failure hadn’t stopped other resort developers from planning for the future.

Image: Happy but tired family at the of the road on Cat Ba Island, Vietnam. Photo provided by Dennis Carr.

Our bike ride ended outside a handsome waterfront hotel in Cat Ba Town. Despite some recently built ugly concrete high-rise hotels, Cat Ba Town is an attractive city nestled between the ocean and the jungle mountains. At our hotel street-front bar we celebrated the end of our cycling with Joe and Hugh over a few cold Hai Noi beers  and then settled into our room which, like the others, was clean, well maintained and air conditioned. It was the end of the bike ride but not the end of our fun with Joe and Hugh for the following day they would take us to a nearby harbour where a junk waited to take us on a tour in Ha Long Bay.  But that’s Part Three of our excellent adventure.

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